THE WALKS AND TALKS WITH 5TH GENERATION OF GENEROSITY AND HONESTY
This season I was lucky to visit the legendary Horween Leather Company. It was about a year ago when I was reading about it in Monocle magazine, and decided, that one day I’d pay a visit myself. That One Day came faster than anybody could have expected… Together with Guy and Brett from Viberg Boot company we went on a tour…
Horween has set the standard for the highest quality leathers since 1905. They offer tannages from vegetable tanned genuine shell cordovan to sport and footwear leathers. What is amazing about the place is that even today all of the leather is still made by hand, and all formulas are wholly developed and produced at their historic location on the corner of Elston and Ashland in Chicago. It is still a family-owned business, and what makes this tannery even more rare is the fact that it is one of 5 tanneries in the world that still processes hides from their raw state to finished leather.
Talking longevity and sustainability, Horween is a tannery to look up to. As Nick, the 5th generation of Horween family, mentions: “Sustainability and traceability are both important. It’s part of our job to ensure that we are responsibly and ethically sourcing our raw materials and producing our leathers. In the past few years we have made careful upgrades in some areas of the facility in order to reduce our energy and water consumption. Most significantly, we produce leathers that wear well and last for many years – it’s our feeling that its better to have fewer, better goods that last longer.”
Tannery itself is simply beautiful. This place has so many little things, patterns, pieces, relics, words, actions, sounds, and smells. And what is the most beautiful about that enormous brick warehouse was its authenticity. The walls exhale authenticity, honesty and hard work.
As we enter the next level, Nick tells that 40% of the production goes into sports – the finest football, basketball, and ball glove leathers are made here. Horween’s specialty is first and foremost in top quality, aniline and semi-aniline finished leathers, suited to footwear, sporting goods, and accessories.
Horween is also well-known within menswear fashion world. Nick comments that they have always had a stronger presence on the menswear side due to their product and process. “Our leather takes longer to make and oftentimes the traditional “fashion” timelines are too short for us. This puts us in the “slow fashion” category as our customers pay a premium for our leather to be made into products that last,” says Nick.
On the 4th floor one is faced with the Cordovan Rooms. The air here is dry and warm… Actually, it is super hot in there. For them who don’t know yet, then cordovan is a specific type of leather from a particular part of a horsehide. Genuine Shell Cordovan is the art of tanning at its finest. The irregular oval shaped shells are tanned, stuffed, shaved, and then polished – a process that takes at least six months to complete. Each shell is slowly steeped in gentle vegetable liquors. The shells are genuine hot stuffed then slicked onto glass frames to dry, each shell being hand curried. Dyes are hand rubbed on for a deep aniline finish. Finally, the shells are hand glazed to achieve this classy, rich and shiny look.
For Nick, real “craft” is something in which you have skill and proficiency – this can only be earned through time and experience. And finding new craftsmen is a challenge? “It can be a challenge. At Horween we train new employees from the very beginning, as most have no experience in the tanning industry. We have many craftsmen that are family members or friends that have come to us over time,” explains Nick.
Besides cordovan, there’s also Essex and Chromexcel techniques –
Essex is a vegetable tanned side leather that utilizes the same traditional tanning extracts as Genuine Shell Cordovan. This tannage is marked by a high oil content and ages beautifully over time. The Essex family of leather is very versatile and can be used in a wide variety of products.
Chromexcel is the original pull-up leather. It is still produced in the United States using a bark retannage from a proprietary recipe, and then genuine hot stuffed with blend of natural oils and greases. Chromexcel is characterized by a rich pull-up in full aniline, hand rubbed finishes. This leather type carries on a long history of durability and comfort.
After visiting and experiencing leather in all it’s multiple forms and levels, one should say that it’s an art form, and Horween Tannery is definitely one of the most important “leather art galleries” in the world. Their team meetings aren’t about “how to grow” but about “how to become better.” As Nick Horween himself says: “Making the best leather possible is our mission and passion. Our pursuit is completely dependent on a customer that can understand what makes our product special and why it costs what it does. We don’t take this for granted and we sincerely appreciate our customers and the users of their products.”
I wouldn’t use here this over consumed word ‘heritage’, or our individual-obsessed culture reference word like ‘legacy’. There is something… Something very clear and simple at Horween. It’s the attitude towards craftsmanship, hard work, continuity and quality… and the honesty that drives this place.
Photography and written by Julia Ahtijainen